Six Questions from Kicker: Leila Takayama

In honor of Device Design Day 2011, we’ve partnered with Core 77 to profile our exciting line up of speakers, and ask them our  Six Questions. For our seventh interview of the series, we’ve talked with Leila Takayama.

Leila  joined Willow Garage in January 2009 as a Research Scientist in the area of human-robot interaction. With a background in Cognitive Science, Psychology, and Human-Computer Interaction, her current focus is understanding human encounters with robots in terms of how they perceive, understand and interact with robots. Among other things, she is working on teaching the robots some manners.

She’ll be speaking at D3 about the challenges of designing for personal robotics.

1. What is the most cherished product in your life? Why?

My coffee mug from New Zealand. This was a gift that was given to me to celebrate the publication of my first research paper when as an undergrad at UC Berkeley. My friend and co-author who gave me the mug is from New Zealand. I’m from Hawaii so we bonded over all things Pacific Islander.

She showed me how research is actually done, letting me learn by doing. She was extremely supportive and patient with me, even though she had no historical evidence that I’d actually be able to become a scientist. This was not a time efficient way for her to work on her dissertation, but she took the time out to mentor me through the research process anyway.

This mug is not only a very functional part of my research routine, holding the hot drinks that keep me going, but it’s also a sentimental reminder of what it was like that first time we had a success in getting to share our research findings with the rest of the world. It happens to have a nice fit for my hands, feels substantial without being too heavy and has survived many years of my clumsiness.

2. What’s the one product you wish you’d designed, and why?

I wish I’d designed the AeroPress. I’ve been using this beautifully simple coffee maker for many years now. It’s self-powered, quiet, easily washable, durable and doesn’t let me make bad coffee.

3. What excites you about being a social scientist? Why do you keep doing it?

I love learning about people and the seemingly nonsensical things they do, especially when encountering new technologies. I like to be able to prove myself wrong (as often happens with human-robot interaction experiments) and to really test out ideas.

I keep doing it because it satisfies my own curiosity about people and technologies. Also, publishing research allows me to share new knowledge with others, who can use that knowledge to make more informed decisions about theories (in academia) and make better products (in industry) that are more useful, more engaging and make more sense to people.

4. When do you first remember thinking of yourself as a scientist?

The first time I really felt like a scientist was when our first research manuscript was accepted for publication.

5. What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned, and who taught it to you?

When you’re torn between a set of options and have to choose one, try this:

* Pick your top two options
* Get a coin
* Assign one option to “heads” and the other option to “tails”
* Flip the coin; the side that lands face up is your decision
* Pause for a moment and see how you feel about your decision
– If your heart sinks, change your decision to the other side
– If you feel relief, stick with that decision

James Landay (Computer Science professor at University of Washington) taught me this trick for making difficult decisions. There are some decisions that just cannot be rationalized with long pro vs. con lists. It has been useful for me in so many circumstances that I’ve started giving friends, family, and students this advice, too.

6. What are 5 things all designers should know?

1. People respond to many interactive technologies in ways that they respond to people, even when they won’t admit it or can’t recognize it. (See: The Media Equation)

2. There is often a gap between how people reflectively talk about an interactive product and what they actually do in the moment of interacting with that product. Know which of those matters to you.

3. What is perceived can be more important what is objectively true when it comes to how people embrace and engage with interactive objects.

4. It really does not take much for an interactive product to seem like it has its own agency and apparent intentions. (See: Heider & Simmel demonstrations)

5. Under promise and over deliver on user expectations.

Don’t miss Leila’s presentation Personal Robotic Devices at Device Design Day,  August 5th in San Francisco.